There’s a crisp autumnal breeze in the air, baseball’s regular season is over, and we may well awake sometime soon to see the skies opening up with a rain of blood: the possibility exists that we could see a Cubs vs. Red Sox World Series. The Cubs won their last World Series in 1908; the Red Sox in 1918 (beating, of course, the Chicago Cubs). The two teams have compiled a remarkable record of futility ever since. The Cubs were crippled by decades of managerial incompetence, penny-pinching owners, and fans who are often content to go see a game at baseball’s prettiest ballpark regardless of whether the team wins or loses, a fact that drives more competitive fans absolutely bonkers. Some Red Sox fans — my grandfather was one of them — aren’t willing to accept mundane explanations like owner apathy or the fact that the Red Sox were the last team in the majors to begin signing Negro League players, a full twelve years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. They want a more interesting answer. And so: the curse of the Bambino. Nobody takes the curse too seriously, of course, and some Sox fans (like my friends Mark and JR) get irritated when you bring it up. But it makes for a great story, one that explains everything about the team’s miserable luck from the 1920s on. (That the musical adaption of the story was wildly successful in Boston says more about Sox fans and their self-image than it does about baseball.) The Red Sox have been to the World Series four times since that fateful day when they traded Babe Ruth, the greatest slugger of his day and arguably the best player in the history of the game. Each time, they’ve lost in seven games.
The Red Sox sold Ruth for $100,000 cash. The Sox owner, perpetually cash-strapped Broadway producer Harry Frazee, received a Yankees guarantee on a $300,000 loan. And the Bambino’s curse has lingered ever since. After the 1919 season in which he hit a then-staggering 29 home runs and his breakthrough 1918 season in which he was both the Red Sox’s ace (throwing a shutout in the first game of the Series) and its leading hitter. After the trade, Ruth would singlehandedly hit more home runs than the Red Sox for ten seasons. And what did Frazee give up Ruth for? No No, Nanette.
At least, that’s how the story goes, but Frazee didn’t use his four hundred thousand Babe Ruth dollars to launch the musical (in fact, it didn’t open until several years after Frazee sold Ruth’s contract.) He wasn’t crazy, just cheap. Ruth was a pricy player. As Frazee’s grandson recalls, Ruth would frequently go off to make money barnstorming. Playing in exhibition games was a profitable venture for many players. It was how Negro Leaguers like Satchel Paige made most of their money, and Ruth discovered that he made more that way than as the Red Sox’s star. Ruth was expensive, a disruptive element on the team, the very model of the brawling, boozing ballplayer, and were it not for the fact that he turned out to be possibly the best player ever, the decision might have looked pretty good. A player purchased with the money Frazee got or an extra World Series title under Frazee’s belt would have helped, of course.
I suspect that my grandfather was more upset that Ruth had gone to the hated Yankees than with the seventy years of postseason failure, although the crushing 1986 Series, when the Sox were one game away from winning it all in Game 6 before everything fell apart (and Bill Buckner’s slim chance of making the Hall of Fame vanished completely), put that to the test. But it’s nice having a curse to fall back on. The whole city can rally around it. There’s a sign on Storrow Drive that should read "Reverse Curve". For years, it’s been covered with a grafitto reading "Reverse the Curse". When the sign was cleaned, someone put the grafitti back almost immediately. That’s civic pride showing, the kind of civic pride you get when you’ve spent eight decades shaking your head sadly and saying, "Wait until next year."